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Screengrab from Terminator 2
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Screengrab from Terminator 2

The Thermonuclear Family

Single Mother of the Future

Why you should care

Thirty years ago, The Terminator gave us the most powerful depiction of single motherhood in film history.

When you think of Sarah Connor, what probably comes to mind is a badass, machine-gun-toting Linda Hamilton who will stop at nothing to protect her son. But when we first met Sarah Connor 30 years ago in The Terminator, she was just a tie-dye wearing, scooter-riding student with a waitressing job and an iguana named Pugsley. She was anything but prepared to raise the future leader of the human resistance. And even after Sarah accepts the fact that a cyborg has come back in time to kill her, she still doesn’t really believe that she’ll one day be a badass. She asks, “Do I look like the mother of the future? I mean, am I tough? Organized? I can’t even balance my checkbook.”

Young, single, punching the clock and unexpectedly pregnant: Sarah Connor looked more like the mother of the future than she could possibly imagine.

It’s not just time travel and special effects, but a powerful, character-driven story about motherhood.

When The Terminator (1984) and its sequel Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) were hitting theaters, single moms onscreen were few and far between. Most women raising children alone in movies or TV shows were professionals who were either divorced or widowed. But the demographics of family were radically changing: By 1980, the rate of births to single women in the U.S. had jumped 50% over the previous decade, and teen parenting was on the rise. Over the past three decades, young women have increasingly parented by themselves. As of 2012, more than 50% of births to U.S. women under the age of 30 occurred outside of marriage, with the fastest growth among white women in their 20s. Women like Sarah Connor.

THE TERMINATOR, Linda Hamilton, 1984.

Source: © Orion/Courtesy Everett Collection

Linda Hamilton, 1984

The Terminator may be a sci-fi action movie, but its emotional arc is about unexpected motherhood. Sarah gets pregnant after a one-night stand, finds out she’s about to become a mother and fights to save herself — and her unborn son — from “termination” (which the criminal psychologist in the film calls a “retroactive abortion”). At the end of the film, Sarah has accepted her fate and is very determined to prepare her son for the future. The Terminator is one of James Cameron’s most enduring films not just because of its time travel conceit or its special effects, but because it’s a powerful, character-driven story about motherhood.

When we meet Sarah again in Terminator 2, she has physically transformed into the iconic action hero we remember. She’s lean and strong, her voice is lower, and she seems about a foot taller than she did in the first film. It’s an image of powerful, protective motherhood that was nearly unrivalled at the time. (Except, perhaps, by Ellen Ripley, the other iconic James Cameron action heroine.)

Actress Emilia Clarke, best known for her role as “Mother of Dragons” Daenerys Targaryen on HBO’s Game of Thrones, will become the next “mother of the future” in a reboot of the Terminator film series in 2015.

But the costs of being the ultimate protective single parent are high for Sarah: She’s exhausted, lonely and often emotionally unavailable to her son. She returns again and again to a vision of the nuclear devastation that the machines will unleash to wipe out humanity. The setting for the vision is a playground, and she sees herself dressed in her waitress uniform from The Terminator and playing with her young son before the bomb drops. The whole world is Sarah’s responsibility, and she’s unable to imagine herself as anything beyond what she was when she became a mother.

TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY, Linda Hamilton, 1991.

Source: ©TriStar Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, 1991

Taken together, The Terminator and Terminator 2 are a moving and complex depiction of single parenting, made all the more remarkable because it would be nearly another decade before anything like Erin Brockovich or The Gilmore Girls would treat single motherhood so centrally.

But if Hollywood had a blind spot about single mothers in the ’80s and ’90s, politicians sure didn’t. Terminator 2 was in theaters the year before Dan Quayle made his infamous “Murphy Brown” speech that linked Hollywood depictions of single motherhood to the breakdown of family and the “lawless social anarchy” of the L.A. riots. Only recently has the persistent myth that single mothering was to blame for increases in violent crime in the ’90s finally been debunked. Conservatives blamed single mothers for all sorts of doomsday scenarios, from crime waves to widespread welfare fraud to the destruction of moral values.

Against this cultural backdrop, James Cameron dared to reimagine the nuclear family as a single-parent family, and a single mother — despite the myriad challenges she faced — as a mighty, protective force for the future. Sarah’s son turns out all right. He goes on to save the world. The Terminator and Terminator 2 were commercial hits. And Sarah Connor became a feminist icon.

Tammy Oler is a Brooklyn-based writer who has written about film, books, pop culture and fandom for Slate, Bitch, Vulture and Geek, among others.

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